Bill Story: The American-Canadian Devil’s Brigade, Part I
Lt. Bill Story was born in Winnipeg, Canada. He began his military service as a platoon sergeant in the Winnipeg Light Infantry at the age of 19. In 1943, he became the first enlisted man in the First Special Service Force to be field commissioned as a lieutenant.
The Devil’s Brigade disbanded in 1944 and, in 2013, the unit received the Congressional Gold Medal for their service. Lt. Story was inducted into the Special Forces Decade Association as a life member in 2015 and passed away in 2016.
Learn more about The Devil’s Brigade from History.com and tune in next time to hear the rest of Lt. Story’s interview on Warriors in Their Own Words.
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Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who wear our country’s uniform. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, in the first of a two-part episode, we’ll hear from Lieutenant Bill Story. Lt. Story was born in 1921 in Winnipeg, Canada. During World War II, he served in the First Special Service Force - a joint American and Canadian unit that earned the name “The Devil’s Brigade”.
Bill Story: To my knowledge, this is the first time in the history of either country that the soldiers of the two countries came together in a unit which was completely integrated. There wasn't a Canadian battalion with American battalions. There was a first special service force, and the Canadians and Americans came together. Right from day one.
Generally, it's not the case, when two countries have its soldiers fighting alongside each other, that there is an intermingling or a joining of these troops. Countries prefer to maintain the control over their own troops. It's a political matter for them and for a prime minister, a very political man like Mackenzie King in Canada, to say and agree that Canadian troops should come down and be totally integrated in a U.S. unit was unheard of. That's what makes it a big deal. I won't go into what I think are the reasons why the prime minister felt this way. Except to say that it relates to his efforts to make Canada one of the three principal or four principal partners in the war against the Nazis.
The First Special Service Force started as an idea in Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Command in London. He had on his staff a man who came to him with a project saying "We're fighting on the land, we're fighting under the ocean, and in the air. But, we don't fight the Germans on the snow. We should have a snow force." Mountbatten liked the idea, but there was no way that the Brits could implement it at that time. Then suddenly, America, on December 7, was catapulted into the war and by March of 1942, General Marshall, Admiral King were meeting with the prime minister and with Lord Louis and the other members of the British establishment on what the Americans could do to get into the war in Europe in an effective way.
Roosevelt had a problem. Since the Japanese had attacked us at Pearl Harbor, the feeling of the Republican Party and all of the writers was that the attack should be made on the Japanese, whereas Roosevelt knew, and those who were his advisers knew, that the real enemy was Germany led by Adolf Hitler. So he had to find a way to get the U.S. involved in the European theater and handle the political problem this would face him with here in the United States. So he sent his people over to meet with the Brits since he couldn't travel that well, and he sent Harry Hopkins, who was his good friend and legman, to represent him. They sat down finally after doing other things at a meeting in Chequers, the prime minister's estate, one night. That's when Lord Louis brought out this idea of a snow force. The Americans listened to it, General Marshall listened to it, and they finally agreed, “well, we'll take this back and we'll take a look at it.” So that, amongst other things, went back. One of the things that they agreed on was that soldiers of the U.S. Army could start training with the commandos and these soldiers would be the rangers. They also decided that this should be a multi-national force because the objectives they had in mind were Norway, Northern Italy and Romania.
In any event, the idea was taken back. General Eisenhower, who was in charge of plans at that time, called in a lieutenant colonel by the name of Robert T. Frederick, who was in the plans department, and said "Here, take a look at this thing and see what you think of it." Frederick did a thorough job and came up with a negative opinion: that there would be no way to get these troops who are volunteers out of the countries which they were attacking. There would be difficulty in supplying them. There had been nothing produced in the way of an over the snow vehicle, although that really was underway separately in the U.S. So he gave a negative opinion. And with that, he went on about doing whatever else he was doing in the plans department. But he didn't reckon with two things: first, Churchill and Roosevelt were romantics. They had picked up this idea of having a light force which would attack the Germans in some of their most difficult places - Norway. There was some concern about the heavy water plant for atomic energy. They didn't know how much the Germans knew of the atomic energy situation. They thought the water plant should be taken out and this could be one of the objectives. They also felt that the power plants in northern Norway, which were providing the power for the mines, produced the iron ore that was then shipped to Germany and made high grade steel. They were also after the oil fields, the remaining oil fields, which basically, if Germany had failed to get into the Mid-East and the oil reservoirs there, the Russian oil fields were closed to them.
Most of Italy's manufacturing was up in northern Italy. By killing the plants, the high water power plants in the Swiss Alps or the Italian Alps, they could slow that down, not cut it off. That was fine, and as far as the politicians were concerned, something of this nature should be done.
So the word went out to the army, "Let's get this organization going."
Well originally the concept called for, since we were going into Norway, called for use of Norwegians. The Norwegian government in exile was in London in any event. Also the Brits, with commandos, already had a force which could be quickly trained. As far as the other two countries are concerned, that wasn't really a factor because there are Norwegians and the British. Norway withdrew because they found out that the goal was the power plants. They pointed out with accuracy that their people in Norway depended on the heat that was generated by the devices of the power plants.
So far as the capability of the commandos to carry this out, they didn't have the manpower. That's why they presented it to the Americans as something they could do, and because the Brits were out and the Norwegians were out. The question came up, what do we do? Well, Mountbatten said, why don't we ask the Canadians? So when he came over about a month and a half after the session at Chequers, he made arrangements to go up to Ottawa. He approached the Governor-General and asked the Governor-General to set up a meeting with the prime minister, which they did. He and Colonel Frederick went up and received basically an OK from the Canadian government.
I think a major factor was that Canada had been at war since 1939. All Americans think the war started on December 7th, 1941, but it started in September 1939. Speaking personally, I was in the Canadian army by January of 1940. So there was a ready body of trained soldiers who weren't going anywhere because no decision had yet been made to attack the continent, and Canada had two divisions in England at that time. So they had a store of trained soldiers that they could rely on.
Eisenhower asked the personnel, people in the Army, to give him the names of officers that had certain characteristics and who might be suitable for this command. He reviewed them and they came up with only one name and that man was selected to head up and put together the force. I'm told, and I don't have this on direct authority at all, he didn't like the prospect. He agreed with Frederick's decision on it, and he didn't like that, so he withdrew. He might have been asked to withdraw somewhere, but I have no knowledge of that, but I like to think that it happened that Anne Frederick Hicks, who was Frederick's daughter, had a birthday party and Frederick was away from the Pentagon attending his daughter's birthday party at home, and Eisenhower simply came over. They both lived in Fort Myers. Eisenhower came over and sat down with him and told him that there wasn't anybody else who knew what the force was all about and had a handle on the production of the Weasel in addition to this. So he was going to have to do it. I can tell you that Anne Frederick Hicks was so proud of having her birthday and the senior general in the house that she went to the kitchen, picked up her birthday cake, brought it out into the living room to show to Eisenhower, tripped on the rug and dumped it in his lap.
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Now, back to Warriors in the Own Words.
BS: In the course of examining the whole concept, Frederick did go overseas and he did meet with Mountbatten. I've read that Mountbatten was impressed with the colonel and that he was not particularly impressed with the man who subsequently decided not to take part. That is a reason why Frederick was tapped. Professional soldiers have to spend time at the headquarters, and they have to move through various levels of training as officers and managers of various areas. That's why they move as frequently as they do from job to job. So Frederick had come from a coast artillery command and had been deemed worthy of moving up. He had been placed in the plans department so that he was one of the people who took a look at all of these plans and ideas and said yay or nay. So someone valued his basic intelligence and his understanding of the role of a soldier in war.
One of the first people he brought on board was Robert Burns, who was the intelligence officer, the next person on board was Ken Wickham, who was the adjutant. The other one was our supply officer. And first of all, they had to organize the force. You know, what kind of unit is this going to be? Because this had never existed before. Ken Wickham sat down one afternoon and said "Well, we're going into three locations, so we should have three regiments. Then, well, a regiment usually has three battalions, but we don't really need that, so we'll have two battalions." And you get down to the company level. We can do with three companies per battalion. Lower down we'll have three platoons, but we won't have three squads, we'll have two sections. That's the way the force was built.
You have to look at the timetable. December 7th, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. By the end of February, beginning of March, the U.S. Army and the Navy were over in London talking with the Brits about where do we go from here? By May, a decision had been made to go forward with the unit. It was realized that if we were to do these three projects, then we had to do them by December or January of 1942, 43. That gave that period of time. By the time they organized the force and got all of the layout of the force structure itself, these men will not have time to do the standard things that soldiers do. Guard duty, KP, marching around. These are trained soldiers, we don't have to put them on a parade ground, but we've got to keep them supplied and we've got to make sure that they're not called upon to do the kind of duty that the average soldier would do except keep their own personal area clean. So, the service battalion was the answer to this. They would have a company that would take care of the records, that would take care of the food and supplies. They would have a company which would take care of the technical aspects, the maintenance company, maintenance of weapons and things like that, and providing ammunition. These fellows, they did for us everything. The latrine duty, for instance. And they were not volunteers. They were just sent here as soldiers. So there was a feeling that, you know, the service battalion is another world because we are the combat echelon. But it only took the first day of being in combat in Italy against the Germans for that attitude, to whatever degree it existed, to disappear completely. Then the service battalion was very much part of the first special service force is very important to us. They took training and they did a lot of the training that we did. They were not jumpers, except for the parachute service company who were trained paratroopers to pack our shirts for us. They underwent training which enabled them to feel that they were doing the same things that we were doing. I'm not sure about skiing. But the rest of it, the physical things that we did, yes.
Memories of of the the long ride down from Calgary on a hot summer's day in early August with sparks and soot flying through the windows we had open. And the question is, where were we going? Because we were airborne (we knew we were airborne and we'd volunteered for that), we thought that we were probably going to be trained at Fort Benning, Georgia. There was a lot in the Canadian newspapers about our Canadian paratroopers being trained at Fort Benning. When we got to Great Falls instead of continuing east, we turned south and next thing we know, we're in this place called Helena, which none of us had ever heard of before, we called it "Helina". Then we were backing into this fort and all you could see when you looked out the windows were bulldozers. Dust flying up in the air and pyramidal tents, which new for us Canadians, because we used round bell tents. In any event, pulling in, then being ordered off the train with our kit bags, we could look out and see the soldiers, the American soldiers who had arrived in their variety of uniforms, which included fellas with with coveralls on- herringbone 12 coveralls, which we all were issued two days later, and floppy hats, fatigue hats, and the officers who'd come from the cavalry still wearing their cavalry boots and trousers, jodhpurs,I guess you'd call them. Then, the other U.S. Army infantry officers wearing the green jacket in a sort of a pinkish colored set of trousers. These were as amazing to us as our garb must have been to the Americans when we got off the train. Most of us were wearing what we called KDs, which were long jackets with long trousers, and the jacket had brass buttons. Down the front of it, on our cap, we had, which usually cocked over the right eye, had our unit badge on it and two brass buttons, which we always kept polished on the front. So those are the memories. Those are fun memories to look back on.
We got off the train, we were paired off, two by two, and somebody led us to the company's street, Fifth Company, 2nd Regiment, and said "You're in the last tent on the right." So we walked down to the last tent on the right and walked in and there were two American soldiers.
They were both from the cavalry, although from different cavalry units. Stony Winds and Major Hanby. We got in and introduced ourselves. They were from the south of the Mason-Dixon line, so we learned a little bit about that. They didn't know a damn thing about Canada. They thought we still paid taxes to the king, and we took care of clearing up that misunderstanding. And that's the way it went, the way any two guys or four guys would meet as strangers and realize that they're here. They're going to be bunking in with these people. Since we were trained soldiers, we were used to bunking in with other people. For me the transition was very easy. The only problem I had was that those other three guys would take off and go down to the Last Chance Gulch and come back loaded at night. Because my grandfather had been an alcoholic, my mother had raised me to be very fearful of alcohol, so I stayed back the first night and I stayed back the second night. When they came home to the tent that second night, they brought a pint of whiskey, bourbon, with them and they woke me up and I had to drink half a pint of whiskey. The third night I went down into Helena with them. That was a merger problem, but it was a personal issue. Actually Canadians knew more about the United States than Americans knew about Canada because we had the radio programs, we had the movies, you know, the Fibber McGees and Mollys, the Jack Bennys and the rest of them were as familiar to us as they were to Americans. So we knew what we were coming into in the U.S. because of its prominence and size. And 9ts dominance really was a focal point, a point of interest for people. One of Canada's biggest exports for years was its young people. So that had a bearing. And as far as people, the French Canadians, for instance, one of the things that these two fellows learned was that my high school French was very bad and the other guy couldn't handle French at all. They were under the impression that all Canadians spoke French. Well it's true. On the train coming down, we had some francophones, but they also handled English. Some with difficulty, but they handled English.
Well, Ryan was an officer at Fort Belvoir in the Washington, D.C. area who was working on explosives, new types of explosives. The one that he came up with that carries his name- It was a more powerful explosive than TNT. It was easier to handle than dynamite. The way it was produced, it came in long rectangular blocks that were tied together with primacord. So in a very small pack on your back, you could carry a tremendous amount of explosive power. We got a lock on the entire supply. No one else had RS, at least initially. We made good use of it in Montana, learned how to use it effectively, trained with dummy packs of RS, you know, it was there.
Most of the pictures that you see there are of officers. The junior officers and other officers being trained in the use of explosives. Some of the big expeditions that went out, a couple of them, were entirely officer oriented. They're the ones who blew up the bridges, you know. Who led off a tremendous blast outside of Libya and blew all the windows out of that community. By the time they got to us, there was a little bit more control and they knew more about the volume of explosives to be needed. So we could train effectively and we trained using dynamite. It still boggles people's mind, the idea that you could pick up a case of dynamite sticks that was unopened and instead of using a hammer to open the top, you simply pick the box up and drop it on its corner. The way it was made, it just fell apart. Use of a hammer could be very dangerous if it was old dynamite. It could be quite unstable, because it had a lot of nitroglycerin in it, which could seep through the paper. TNT, which came in yellow blocks, was much more stable and easier to work with. But it again had to be linked. So you had to put a primer into the hole on the top and then link it to another block of TNT and so on. With RS, all you had to do is to put a primer on the primacord and starter. You know, pull the starter, and it went.
Out here in the hills at Fort Harrison, there was a mockup of a power station, and that was a power station as nearly as they could imitate it, of the power station we were to blow up in Norway. So we used dummy RS for that. Quite intensive training. It wasn't just go out there once and do it. We were back a number of times and did it. We also had training in the use of explosives at night. I don't know whether anybody has mentioned this, but three nights a week we were in class here learning things like the formula that you used to decide how much of an explosive you should use to cut a piece of an iron bar, or the rail, or something of that nature. Then on maps and map reading. Later on, on signals.
One of the shortcomings of the U.S. Army weapons at that time for the infantry was a long light machine gun called the Browning Automatic Rifle. I had, as I recall, it had a relatively slow rate of fire. It had a long barrel. It had bipodal legs on the front, which, as far as I was concerned, were always falling down just as I was taking aim. Dragging the barrel of that gun through the brush and the shrubs around here and with a slow rate of fire, just was not what the Canadians were used to. We were used to the Bren gun, which was the light machine gun, bipodal, and had a carrying handle on it. You could move quickly when you were in a firefight. You couldn't as readily do that with a BAR. But the Americans swore by the Browning Automatic Rifle because of its long barrel. It was very accurate. Far more accurate than Bren gun. But the war had changed. Intensity of fire was what we were getting from the Germans. High speed machine guns and light machine guns, and so the BAR was just not suitable. Between the other ranks and the officers, we complained enough that they got the message, the Americans got the message and they went looking for a light machine gun. They found one in in Johnson: a gun manufacturer who had produced a rifle, the Johnson Rifle, which was in competition with the Garand rifle for being the M1 of the U.S. Army. It was too light for the U.S. Army, and so the Garand won. Johnson also adapted that and made a light machine gun. Those machine guns - he couldn't sell them to the U.S. Army, but he got an order from the Dutch government for a large supply of machine guns, Johnny Guns, as we call them. That supply was never delivered, it was embargoed because the Dutch government fell and then the Japanese were attacking the Dutch East Indies, so the guns were here. Carlson, when he was putting together the Marine Raiders, learned of these guns and because they were light machine guns and the Marines were not committed to the BAR, he took those, he took that supply, and we discovered then - Orville Baldwin, our supply officer, discovered that the light machine gun we wanted was owned by the Marines. So they negotiated with the Marines, and the Marines found out that we had the only available supply of RS. Three or four tons. So we swapped. RS for the Johnny guns. We got enough Johnny guns for every section of the first special service force plus replacement quantity. Those supplies lasted until southern France when, you know, we just could not get any more Johnny guns. Then, an improved BAR showed up in the sections.
Battle drill is just a means taking the kind of parade ground drilling that you did. If you were a platoon for instance, you had to learn how to turn around, you had to learn how to go to the left, go to the right, whether you went in column of twos or column of threes and things of that nature. Battle drill simply took the drill concept and said, let us lay out on the drill ground the steps that people have to take in order to perform a certain type of maneuver, attack maneuver. Now as I recall in the Canadian army, when I was taking my exams to become a sergeant, there was only one booklet that I got that had anything to do with platoon tactics. In that booklet, they simply said you approach spread apart or you approach single-file. It wasn't anything that had really anything to do with fire and movement. When I got down here to Fort Harrison and looked at one of their training manuals that one of the fellows had, I saw basically the same thing.
Those manuals were all based on World War I. When the war was entirely different. You know, it was a static war fought from trenches. Whereas World War II turned out to be a war of movement. To move in the face of enemy fire, you had to be able to bring down counter fire.
So what battle drills did was to take us out as a platoon and have the platoon commanders say we're going to do a left flanking movement. The classroom training told us that that left flanking meant that one section would provide the covering fire while the other section moved forward under protection of that fire. Then when they were in their place, then the first section would move up while the second section provided the covering fire and the final attack would be made in a leftward manner coming in on the enemy or a right flank. If the whole platoon was going in and on a company attack, then it would be a pincer movement. Inherent in this was understanding of how the German army positioned its machine guns. Their practice was to fix their machine guns in defensive positions and fire on fixed lines. Fixed line is the gun is set there, and it's stationed. They will initially fire on fixed lines and there comes a point in the swinging of that machine gun when it can no longer swing to the left or to the right extremity. The tricky part was, was to know the extent to which they could move the gun to the right or the left, or depress it up and down, and get in there basically on a blind side and take that machine gun nest out with with a well-placed grenade, or a couple of them, or simply a tommy gun attack.
That's what battle drill was all about. Now, we did extensive battle drill work when I was training my platoon in the Canadian army. Because of the quality of men, we spent a fair amount of time on the parade ground teaching them how to march these places out. They would literally march out five paces and stop, and then pretend to perform the shooting and the defensive. Here at Fort Harrison, two days max was all that was needed to do it on the parade square.
Well, insofar as the U.S. Army was concerned, at that time there was nothing like this that taught infantry soldiers how to make the most effective attack with minimum casualties. To do this, to set up a plan to attack a location meant setting up a plan and sitting down and deciding how it was going to be done. I can remember being right out here in these grounds at Fort Harrison and being given a problem, set up an attack on this particular position, and then the parameters of that position would be given. You know, “this is an area which is under floodlights or there's machine gun protection over here, machine gun protection over there. How would you take that out?” My practice was to sit down with the guys and say “These are the parameters, have you got any ideas? I've got some ideas, but do you have any ideas as to how we might do this best?” And we would come up with an attack mode, whether we were successful or not, we left that to the umpires. But, we did have training in that. On the Anzio beachhead, when we were required, especially the Second Regiment, was required to go out on combat patrols on a regular basis and from small patrols all the way up to full battalion, there had to be some forethought and planning given to that. There also had to be an understanding on the part of the soldiers. There had to be a combat discipline on which everyone depended. That you knew what you were supposed to do. Even to the extent that you knew if someone was hit, and the leadership was gone, who would take his place immediately, who would assume command.
That was a very important part of what the second regiment did, because they were the ones who bore the brunt of the more dramatic attacks. The same thing I'm sure was true in the First Regiment and in Third. Although, they weren't called upon specifically to do the patrolling to the extent that Second was, but we all had the responsibility of keeping the Germans off our backs and not letting them find out how few and how light we were on the ground.
By the time of World War Two, it really was a colloquial German expression, standard use: "Hey, the worst is yet to come" or "You ain't seen nothing yet, buster" as we would translate.
KH: That was World War II veteran Lieutenant Bill Story. We’ll hear more from him in the next episode of Warriors in Their Own Words. Make sure you’re subscribed to the podcast to see Part II in your feed.
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Warriors in Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with the Honor Project. Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Senior producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Dave Douglas. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Warriors in Their Own Words.